Tuesday, January 31. 2006
I thought I'd write a little bit about my mother. She died in June 2000, still a void in my life that I suspect never will fill. She was born on this day in 1913, the last of eight siblings, not counting two who died as infants. She grew up on a farm in the Arkansas Ozarks, a few miles east of what is now Lake Norfolk, a few more miles east of Mountain Home. Her father's family came to Arkansas from Ohio after the Civil War, which I guess made them carpetbaggers, although like most Americans heading west in the 19th century, they were mostly just looking for open land. The farm was handed down to the eldest son, my Uncle Ted, who had set up his own farm next door. We visited Ted often when I was a child, and I've been to the now abandoned farm as recently as two years ago. One of Ted's daughters still lives in the area, but the rest of the family scattered to points west. Even within my lifetime the area has lost much of the density it once had.
My mother was named Bessie, a name she always hated. Later she insisted on going as Bea, but she was never able to retrain her family. I don't know much about her life before she married. I never was much good at asking questions, and there were questions she never much wanted to answer. I know that she took sick with some fever (typhoid, I think) and was confined to her bed for a year, missing school. She never came close to graduating high school. She could read some, and wrote in a nice hand, but her spelling was atrocious. I don't know that any of her siblings finished high school -- one reportedly took to moonshining over fourth grade, and never learned to read at all. But my mother had a stubborn, independent streak. She worked, saved, travelled. She used to have a box of picture postcards from the east, with occasional references to someone named Riley, never explained. But she did talk about seeing Tommy Dorsey in Atlantic City. And a cousin remembers her showing up in Idaho with an astonishing wardrobe. But most of the time she probably spent in Oklahoma, where two of her sisters had farms and her mother moved after her father died in 1936. And in the '40s she moved to Augusta KS, where her other sister lived. During the war they both got jobs at Beech Aircraft in Wichita.
Later, she met my father, marrying him in 1948, when she was 35 and he 25. I was born two years later, followed by a brother and a sister. Mom quit her job before having me, and obsessively pursued the stereotypical role of '50s housewife. My father also grew up on a farm, had little more education, and worked all his adult life in the Boeing factory. We had a small tract house on the south side of Wichita. My parents worked hard, saved, paid off their mortgage within five years, and built extra rooms on the back. It was the only house they ever had -- my brother lives there now. Aside from that first mortgage, they never had any debt or credit. (None of their three children have mortgages either.) Regardless of education, both of my parents had exceptional practical skills, and much of what I'm able to do comes from watching them.
When I was a child, my mother had incredible energy. She dominated the marriage and the family. She was a perfectionist, and demanded as much, especially from me. She expected much of me because I was quite smart, and after some rocky episodes she kept faith in me even when she had no clue what I was saying or doing. (My teenage years were very rough, but that's some other story.) She was righteous. She had a deep sense of right and wrong, which she developed independently from what preachers told her, and she was extraordinarily stubborn in her convictions. The example she talked most about was card playing, one of her great loves. She insisted that card playing is fine as long as you never cross the line into gambling. She never did, and for that matter neither have I. She was rigorously honest, and she could not abide crookedness. Like most yankees from her narrow part of the Arkansas hills, she grew up Republican, but she turned on Nixon and never looked back. She believed in God, and revelled in the music, but didn't care much for preachers or churches, who were far more fallible than her own judgment. She was devoted to family, and managed to keep remarkably close tabs on her by then far flung family.
She had some faults which we needn't belabor now, but one was that she was very deferential to authority, which caused us a lot of trouble. I spent my adolescent and young adult years trying to escape her grip, which ultimately proved impossible and mostly undesirable. In the end, I reverted to my childhood, hoping that my life might please her, and in the end she was magnanimous enough that it did. She was able to live with contradictions where I could not, so I wound up jettisoning her lesser beliefs, like God and country, in order to carry on her greater beliefs. I got my sense of ethics from her, and my sense of purpose. Can't say as it's always served me well, but can't imagine life without it either.
Monday, January 30. 2006
Sometimes even I am shocked at how depraved public discourse has become in America. For instance, here are a couple of paragraphs from today's Cursor Media Patrol (minus the links):
Why is it that so many Americans (and Israelis) think that all they have to do to solve their problems is go out and kill people? And it's not just Republicans and Likudniks: I saw Howard Dean on TV the other day applauding the botched missile attack on Pakistan. (Sure, they were aiming at Zawahiri, but the missile hit Pakistan, killing Pakistanis.) The prevalence of support for such acts only starts with the 57% ready to bomb Iran -- no telling how many of the other 43% would also support strikes if they didn't think that the threat wasn't serious enough, the strikes might not work, or the blowback would be unmanageable.
I don't know why Americans are so bloodthirsty, and I doubt that they know either. No doubt much of it is that we've become habituated: when Clinton, say, bombs Iraq or Afghanistan or Sudan or Yugoslovia, it's just something presidents do, presumably for our benefit. When nothing particularly bad happens to us as a result, we discount all other consequences. We know little about others, and not just others beyond our borders. We think we know the world through our media, but the false familiarity we see and hear and read disconnects us. It all becomes us vs. them, which makes us easy prey for propagandists -- all they have to do is show us how evil they are, and reassure us they're working hard to protect us. So Americans may not really be bloodthirsty, they sure are gullible. And in the end it may not make much difference.
Further evidence comes from recent polls indicating that Americans are ever more disgusted with the war in Iraq. Someone should point out that the propaganda drumbeats for Bush's invasion of Iraq started back in the '90s when people like Gingrich were first calling for a regime change policy in Iraq. The regime change policy, implemented by funding crooks like Ahmed Chalabi and terrorists like Iyad Allawi, meant that the US would never accept inspection findings that Iraq possessed no weapons of mass destruction, and that the US would never accept any attempt to reform and liberalize the Iraqi government. Iran would be just the same: adopting a regime change policy tells Iran to prepare for inevitable war.
The mistake Americans (and Israelis) make is their inability to imagine how their acts affect others, and how they look to others. Other people have that problem too, especially when they feel picked on, but no one else is so armed and so inured to the effects of their violence. Take Israel's (and America's, at least as represented by the likes of Condoleezza Rice) knee jerk reaction to Hamas for example. Israel has time and again promoted terrorists -- people responsible for killing hundreds of Palestinians at Deir Yassin, Qibya, Sabra and Shatila, and elsewhere -- to high political office, but dealing with the elected representatives of the Palestinians would be bowing to terrorism?
As these polls indicate, if the US doesn't go to war in Iran, it won't be because the warmongers couldn't swing the propaganda case. It will be because cooler heads in the military-security establishment recoil from biting off another disaster like Iraq. But that won't stop wannabes like Gingrich and Sam Brownback from trying to ply war fever to their advantage -- or Dean and Kerry for their own preferred war. After all, they realize, like Bush (or Rove, at least) realizes, that the only war results that really matter are elections here. And to do that you just have to fool enough of the people enough of the time.
Sunday, January 29. 2006
Another week, with distractions and a scheduling postponement -- as it turns out, a reprieve of two weeks. I still find myself being indecisive more often than not. Once February Recycled Goods is done I'll get back to finishing off the Jazz CG. The undecideds at this point are almost guaranteed to be held off until the next cycle.
John Bishop: Nothing If Not Something (2004 , Origin): This is a trio with Rick Mandyck on alto sax, Jeff Johnson on bass, and Bishop on drums. Aside from one group credit, Mandyck has four songs, Johnson two, and Bishop zero. But Bishop owns the label, which counts for something. Origin was founded in Seattle in 1997 to give Bishop's home town jazz scene an outlet, and now has something like 85 records, plus more on their co-op OA2 label. Until they started mailing to me, I doubt that I've heard of as many as five artists on their roster. Obviously, as jazz scenes go, New York is in a class by itself. The second tier definitely includes Chicago, maybe a couple more (Philadelphia? Detroit? San Francisco-Oakland? Boston?), and aside from New Orleans, where jazz had become a tourist business, that's about where national consciousness stops. Beyond that there are probably a dozen cities comparable to Seattle, virtually unknown to anyone who doesn't live there. Portland and Vancouver are two I know a bit about. Seattle is new to me, but this is a good start. Mandyck has a clear, cutting tone, and interesting postbop ideas. Johnson and Bishop are solid supporters, and their solos hold up. I doubt that any of them would blow folks away in New York, but they more than hold their own here. B+(**)
Brent Jensen: Trios (2006, Origin): No record date. Two sets, one with guitar-bass, the other with bass-drums. Songs are standard jazz fare, so much so that one can imagine this as the orals for a jazz degree program: "Beautiful Love," "Bemsha Swing," "How Deep Is the Ocean," "Giant Steps," "Softly as in a Morning Sunrise," "East of the Sun," "Well You Needn't." I've been reading Stuart Nicholson's Is Jazz Dead?, where he complains much about jazz that points backwards, showing off its competency while hiding its disinterest in innovation. Still, Jensen, an alto saxist, aces everything he touches, and while this breaks no new ground, it succeeds at a more fundamental level: it entertains and delights. B+(***)
Cyrus Chestnut: Genuine Chestnut (2005 , Telarc): Piano trio, plus Russell Malone (guitar) on three cuts, Steven Kroon (extra percussion) on more. Chestnut describes his influences as "jazz, gospel, classical, R&B, etc." and his intentions that they work as "a collective," "not work separately." That sounds to me like a recipe for mud, but they actually do separate out somewhat, and Kroon tosses in a little Latin tinge for good measure. While this strikes me as more likable than the last couple of albums I've heard from Chestnut, little else strikes me any way at all: the fast ones line up, Malone helps a bit, the slow ones disconnect, the gospel at the end barely gets its amen out. B
Upper Left Trio: Sell Your Soul Side (2005 , Origin): Piano trio, probably from Seattle, with Clay Giberson in the hot seat, Jeff Leonard on bass and Charlie Doggett on drums. Don't know any of them, but the album is sharply reasoned and deftly executed. Picture on the back cover reminds me of E.S.T. -- young white guys against a bleak background. Music is similar too, but no electronics. B+(**)
Fred Hersch: In Amsterdam: Live at the Bimhuis (2003 , Palmetto): One of the best mainstream pianists working, but this one is solo, live, not all that interesting. I should go back to his Maybeck session for comparison -- it's been on the unrated shelf for a long time, still unheard -- but distinctions are likely to be marginal. And I should develop a finer sense of what does and does not work with solo piano. But three plays of this pretty decent one has only convinced me that this isn't the place to start. B
Gutbucket: Sludge Test (2005 , Cantaloupe): Saxophonist Ken Thompson seems to be the main guy in this quartet, filled out by guitarist Ty Citerman, bassist Eric Rockwin, and drummer Paul Chuffo. The music's built from hard, straight electric bass lines, which guitar and (especially) sax vamp over rockishly. I liked the basic idea from the start, but it's taken me a while to get into their implementation, and I haven't hit bottom yet. [B+(**)]
Joe Morris: Beautiful Existence (2004 , Clean Feed): This is a quartet, with bass, drums, and alto saxist Jim Hobbs mixing it up with the leader's guitar. Morris rarely records with horns -- a quick check shows an album I don't care for much with Ken Vandermark and two I don't know with Rob Brown -- but this match with Hobbs brings out a more aggressive and more varied strain in his playing. I haven't noticed Hobbs before: like Morris, he comes from Boston; did a couple of records for Silkheart in 1993 but nothing since under his own name; has a dozen or so sideman credits since 1993. He's plays well in the avant vein, with fast choppy runs that poke at the edge of noise while retaining their musicality. Found an article where Morris is quoted saying that Hobbs is "as good as anyone who's ever played that instrument." I wouldn't go that far, but he sure is a good match for Morris -- the hot pepper that spices up Morris' lyricism. Will have to play this again to be sure, but thus far I like this quite a bit. [A-]
Jeff Arnal, Seth Misterka, Reuben Radding, Nate Wooley: Transit (2001 , Clean Feed): Actually, as best I can figure, group name is Transit too. Misterka plays alto sax, Wooley trumpet, Radding bass, Arnal percussion. Free improv. Played it a couple of times. Sounds sporadically interesting, generally unexceptional. Could be wrong. I'll keep it in the queue, and maybe find some reason to revisit it later. [B]
And these are final grades/notes on records I put back for further listening the first time around.
Hiromi: Spiral (2005 , Telarc): I like her straight acoustic piano trio work, and I like her electronics, although the Kung-Fu remix goes a bit over the top. But I don't have any real insights into why I like it, or why I don't rate it even higher. Made the last one an Honorable Mention, and this is pretty close to it, but the curve is probably steeper these days. And the time to figure it out is getting scarcer. B+(**)
Arild Andersen Group: Electra (2002-03 , ECM): Two nicks against this one. One is the extensive use of voices, even if they're mostly used for texture. The other is that the electronics often get used for cliché effects -- wind, thunder, like that, or at least that's what they suggest. That's not to say that they never work out, but they're where the weak spots reside. Aside from these effects, the music, built around programmed drums, percussion, guitar and bass, with Arve Henriksen's hollow-sounding trumpet for window dressing, is dense and powerful, inscrutably dramatized, often hypnotic. Andersen's Masqualero bandmate Nils Petter Molvaer helped out on the programming. B+(**)
Positive Knowledge: First Ones (2005, Charles Lester Music): The squeak, skronk, and flat-out noise finally spoiled this pan-African avantism for me -- a surprise, since I initially suspected Ijeoma Thomas' "poetic vocals." She's a taste you may not care to acquire, but she's not full of shit, and she somehow keeps the clash of the two horns -- husband Oluyemi Thomas, who plays everything but favors the bass clarinet, and tenor saxist Ike Levin -- within safe limits, at least when she's present. Interesting conceptually, and promising, but too tough to sled. B
John McNeil: East Coast Cool (2004 , Omnitone): Updates the Mulligan-Baker pianoless quartet frame with east coast panache, but still feels like a small idea, even if nicely executed. B+(*)
Ernie Andrews: How About Me (2005 , High Note): Veteran blues-based crooner, goes down easy, especially with producer Houston Person joining in on tenor sax. Slow ones drag a bit. B+(**)
Joel Futterman/Alvin Fielder/Ike Levin Trio: Resolving Doors (2004, Charles Lester Music): Futterman plays piano, similar to Cecil Taylor as far as one can go with that. Which doesn't mean that he doesn't have his own distinct style, but this is the only of his two dozen albums I've heard thus far, and it isn't easy to focus on him with Ike Levin in the room. Levin plays tenor sax and bass clarinet -- tough, fearless, rough around the edges, but he gets a sweet tone on the one ballad stretch here. He has connections to Fred Anderson and Kidd Jordan, but reminds me as much of Charles Brackeen. Fielder, the drummer, is an AACM founder, with a long resume starting from Sun Ra. All have Chicago ties, although Futterman moved to Virginia in 1973 -- no doubt part of the reason he's remained so obscure. If you imagine this as a piano-sax brawl, which it sometimes sounds like, it's the drummer who keeps both sides swinging. Of course, there's more to it than that. B+(***)
Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra: Don't Be Afraid . . . The Music of Charles Mingus (2003 , Palmetto): This became inevitable once flacks tried to draw an orchestral line from Ellington to Mingus to Marsalis -- otherwise, wouldn't Mingus be a bit too outré for the upscale crowd? Mingus has yet to develop into a repertory staple, at least outside of the official tribute bands, filled with old Mingus hands, that Sue Mingus rides herd on, and even there recent albums like I Am Three (Sunnyside) suggest they're running on fumes. (The rule of thumb is that the older albums are the better ones, but I haven't rechecked to see whether they're just less redundant, or the memory is fresher, or what.) What's missing from all the remakes is Mingus himself -- the virtuoso bassist, of course, but more importantly the leader who drove small bands to play huge. Here fifteen musicians play small. At the end of the tricky title piece about the clown, they even laugh small. B-
Saturday, January 28. 2006
News: Can't cover it all, or even much of it, here are a few little things:
Friday, January 27. 2006
The Nation has a piece (beware, subscriber only, why?) called "A 'Top Ten' List of Bold Ideas" by Gar Alperovitz and Thad Williamson. I have nothing against bold thinking, even when most of the left is perpetually distracted doing damage control. But the prerequisite for bold thinking is better thinking, which for starters means thinking grounded in a better understanding of real problems and cognizant of what does and doesn't work. And it wouldn't be a bad idea to throw in a few practical steps along the way. I'm going to go through this top ten one by one, summarize as succinctly as possible, and hang my thoughts on at the end.
1. Real National Security. Three ideas: get serious about nuclear antiproliferation; spend more on homeland protection; eliminate energy dependence on the Middle East. The latter is one of those things that people say without thinking. The Middle East has nothing in particular to do with how much energy we use. That's a function of our economy, and the only brake on our use is cost. We increase that cost when we wreck the Middle East, but we also increase that cost when we boycott the Middle East. But in the long run the cost is going up anyway because the world's oil resource is being pumped dry. We might temporarily suppress prices by reducing demand -- by conserving or by finding other sources -- but not in the long run. And as long as the Middle East does have significant oil fields, we only hurt ourselves by hurting them. Of course, one big way we hurt ourselves is by driving people in the Middle East to attack us. If we could somehow figure out how not to do that most of these "real national security" costs would go away, and since they produce nothing much of value, that would be a plus for us as well as them.
And why should we care about a plus for them? Well, at bottom that's our real problem: we don't, and they know we don't, so when they suffer they have to figure that those of us who are not part of the solution must be part of the problem. Maybe that's unfair in principle -- our wealth is ultimately built more on our own hard work than on anything we ripped them off for -- but when you look back at history, even as recent as today's newspapers, you'll find a lot of bad things that we've done to them. And you'll find that our dominant ideologies of the pursuit of self-interest just fuel our misdeeds. We don't need to change that deep down, but we do need to recognize that policy can compensate for our sins -- indeed, one of the main reasons we need political institutions (both government and NGOs) is to do necessary things that business and markets can't do. Perhaps we can rationalize this change if we realize that it's in our self-interest not to appear to the world as a conceited, solitary, ill-tempered glutton surrounded by a sea of poverty and pent-up fury. After all, the only path to peace is in being a good neighbor. To do this, we need to build institutions that work, which means institutions that do the right things -- not a repeat of the post-WWII institutions that turned out just to be fronts for US control.
Horrible as nuclear weapons are, proliferation is only a small part of the problem, and would quickly become manageable in a world where conflict is reduced and fairly arbitrated -- i.e., in a world with viable international institutions working under broadly accepted guidelines regarding human rights, national rights, environmental standards, fair trade, development aid, etc. But at the same time nations such as the US need to dismantle or convert their unilateral and allied forces that cast a pall over less powerful countries. For instance, it is well known that the key to nuclear nonproliferation is nuclear disarmament by the great powers. The political challenges here are huge, as the US has refused to participate in such obvious treaties as the elimination of chemical and biological weapons -- a constraint we hypocritically insist others follow -- and even mines. Moreover -- well, the catalog where the US is a major obstacle to world peace and justice is astonishingly large.
One reason why the US is in this position is our paranoid obsession with security. Given this, the big problem with A&W here is that they propose to increase our appetite for security, not reduce it. The plain fact is that even if the US had no military beyond the minimal self-defense forces that Japan, for instance, has, no nation would have the slightest interest in attacking us -- domestically, anyhow. And such a reduced international footprint would cause us far less trouble abroad. Perhaps there would be economic costs to American (multinational, really) businesses abroad, but even there nearly all nations are eager to attract foreign investment, and those that aren't tend to be extremely marginal.
2. Single-Payer Universal Healthcare. Well, duh! The market has failed massively here, and the insurance companies are the most obvious of the problems, but the problem goes far beyond this, and the solutions aren't always so obvious. The core idea is that equal, universal access to quality health care should be a publicly-supported right. But it's not clear what's the best way to split the system between the private and public sectors. And it seems quite unlikely that the "incredible 15 percent of our GDP" we currently spend on health care can or will be much reduced. (We are accustomed to spending that much, and savings can always be reinvested in higher quality, which is likely to be desirable.) And there's always the question of how to move from the current system to anything better. One sensible proposal is to build on the current medicare system to progressively expand coverage of the uninsured, and to expand the VA system (which will probably be necessary anyway given the fiasco in Iraq) to increase supply and limit prices. The pharmaceutical industry can rather easily be limiting patents, and any shortfall in research and development can be financed publically, with the added benefit that data be public.
3. Real Social Security. "A good place to start is with a proposal put forward by former Bush Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill that would produce the equivalent of a million-dollar annuity for every citizen -- enough to guarantee $50,000 or more a year for everyone in retirement." I don't understand this, but it sounds like snake oil. Honest social security would be to revert to a pay-as-you-go system, instead of the current system of overtaxing workers to subsidize deficits the Republicans plan to default on eventually. Saving for the future assumes that assets retain enough value to cover future costs. While this is often true for individuals, it becomes very risky for everyone-at-once, especially given that we can already see debilitating future costs implied by present systems, especially energy and health care costs. Putting the taxes necessary to fund social security off until needed may seem imprudent, but what it does is put the burden squarely where it belongs. Are we willing to assume responsibility as a civilized nation for supporting our old and infirm? If the answer ever becomes no we will have more serious problems than a mere accounting shortfall.
4. Universal Daycare. Presumably A&wmp;W mean public daycare to compensate for any shortfalls in private daycare. This is something that could be extended from the current public education system. I don't know how important or valuable it might be. One thing I'd worry about is how it might turn into a system for subsidizing low-pay jobs.
5. A Rebuilt Educational System. Free college tuition; reduced K-12 class sizes; more Head Start. One thing nobody talks about is the need for non-credentialed adult education. We live under the illusion that education is needed to train children and to certify adult workers, but that's all. But we actually live in a world that is constantly changing, that becomes more complicated, that has to deal with new technology and science and bureaucracy and such that people are increasingly estranged from. We need some easy way for people just to keep up, and we need remedial education for people who didn't get it the first time. Moreover, as our education systems have become ever more obsessed with credentials, we come to devalue learning, knowledge, and the arts in their own right. And by seeing credentials as personal assets, we withdraw public funding and expect the students to make up the difference. One effect of this is that the price of education has consistently risen faster than inflation, which has many effects, including closing the door of opportunity on the poor -- something that adds to their sense of injustice. Consequently, we lose sight of the notion that a well educated citizenry is a national asset, a fundamental source of wealth. Needless to say, one consequence of this lack of interest in real learning and knowledge is we become more ignorant and confused and likely to fall for really dumb and dangerous ideas and politicians. (Q.E.D.)
Also note that education isn't just a matter of schools. It has to do with knowledge, understanding, analytical skills, behavior, all sorts of things, many of which are conveyed in rather ad hoc ways through the media. Ergo, the many problems that we have with our privately owned (increasingly privately interested) media are tied to our problems with education. Also note that these problems are compounded by systems of misinformation and disinformation -- think of them as countereducation, deliberate attempts to sabotage our obtaining an accurate understanding of the world. Who would do such a thing? Well: advertisers, PR flacks, spinmeisters, lobbyists, politicos, preachers, anyone with a private agenda.
6. A Thirty-Hour Week. Sounds nice, and many people would find it attractive (but not as attractive as a 20-hour week). But historically we've never been satisfied with the amount of work we do, so as we become more productive at present tasks we're more likely to add new tasks than to cash in our savings for leisure. For example, we've reduced the percentage of the work force needed for agriculture -- a basic need, but limited by satiety -- from 90 to 3, yet we've found something else for all those people to do. The new jobs are mostly service jobs -- health care and education are two areas that are certain to absorb more people as manufacturing and other resource-dependent jobs decline. There are, of course, many opportunities for eliminating unnecessary jobs, and at least some of those can be converted to leisure time. But it's also likely that more and more leisure time will be converted into unpaid work, like volunteer service. After all, in the end our wealth and welfare depend primarily on how much useful work we do. Until we're satisfied with our wealth and welfare we'll keep working.
7. A Fair Tax System. The proposal here is in the soak-the-rich category, intended to pay for all the other proposals. Given recent changes in taxes and other economic trends that massively favor the rich, there is plenty of reason to nudge the tax burden in a more progressive direction. But taxes are a more complicated issue, and we need to think it through instead of just fiddling ad hoc. One principle is that there needs to be a balance of taxes and spending: you want more spending, you get more taxes, and vice versa. Another is that taxes are fundamentally bad: anything taxed is discouraged because it becomes more expensive. Another is that taxes, especially prohibitive ones, encourage avoidance or evasion: sin taxes may discourage sin but they don't prohibit it because at some point sinners resort to evasion which is often worse than the sin was in the first place (classic example is bootlegging leading to organized crime leading to further criminal activity). Another is that it's easier to raise taxes on transactions (they already involve the transfer of money, so the tax merely increases the price) than on assessments (which force one to find the money elsewhere). Another is that the tax distribution reflects the nation's basic sense of justice, or at least the distribution of power. (Tax cuts for the rich reflect the ascending power of the rich over the rest of us.)
I have a bunch of ideas on what would be a fair and sensible distribution of taxes. I'll sketch this out briefly, but I won't throw any numbers out, mostly because the numbers depend on the level of government spending, which is subject to further debate. But here goes: Most taxes should be based on sales of consumables (as opposed to services or payroll or profits) and should be flat (i.e., everyone pays the same rate for the same product). These are relatively painless in that they merely add to the cost of consumption. They don't disincentivize labor or savings. The tax rates can be varied by product: for most products we don't want to do this because variances are more complicated, but there are some products that have externalities -- long-term costs to the nation that are not factored into manufacturing costs -- and these should be taxed at higher rates reflecting the long-term costs. One example is a product which has an exceptionally high disposal cost -- in these cases the externality tax pays for subsidizing future disposal or recycling. Another example is gasoline, which when burned produces pollution, which has various long-term costs.
Two sets of taxes would cover income. I'd make a distinction between earned income, such as wages or small business profits, and unearned income, such as interest, dividends, capital gains, inheritance, and gifts. Earned income would be taxed over an annual period using a progressive tax scale, much like current income taxes, except lower (because more taxes will be raised on consumption) and, at least relative to the lower tax brackets, more progressive. Unearned income would also be taxed progressively, but its brackets would range by cumulative lifetime income. This practice would mean that the first few hundred thousand dollars of unearned income would be taxed very lightly (if at all), encouraging everyone to build up savings, but income above higher thresholds (up in the million dollar range) would be taxed substantially. Progressive taxation encourages poor people to build assets and become richer. One might argue that it discourages the rich from becoming richer, but in practice all it does is slow down their accumulation of further riches. In a nation that values equal opportunity, that's a pretty fair deal.
We would also have estate taxes, and these would be very progressive. One core idea here is that the distribution of wealth in a nation can only be just if the wealth is obtained as the result of one's efforts (earnings plus savings). Inheritance is not similarly deserved, and leads to favoritism and aristocracy. For small estates this matters little -- in those cases the inheritance would be taxed as unearned income above, as would gifts, an obvious way to avoid estate taxes.
All of the above taxes involve transactions, so they can be paid (or in the case of income withheld) at that time. Some other transactions may be taxed, such as changing money or transferring stocks. On the other hand, property taxes are assessments. The money to pay them must be obtained from elsewhere, in the worst case by liquidating the assessed property. I would discourage, and if possible eliminate, property taxes, except for corporations. Part of the rationale here is that the long-term concentration of property for individuals is eliminated by death and the progressive estate tax. But corporations don't necessarily die, so exempting them from any sort of property tax would let property accumulate indefinitely in corporate hands. There are other corporate tax issues I can't go into at this point. I would be inclined to tax corporate profits after dividends have been paid out, and to use a progressive tax scale. This comes from a preference for small corporations, which are likely to be more competitive.
This is only a broad outline. Many other wrinkles are possible, depending on how you wish to fine tune the system, what sort of behaviors you want to incentivize or disincentivize, etc. There are other issues, especially caused by multiple independent tax authorities such as we have in the US. Multinationals also present problems, such that it may be advisable to develop a system for consistent taxation across national borders. (Such taxes might go directly to international organizations.) Also note that taxing the rich more means they'll have less money to invest, so it may become more important to provide public funding for investments that are currently handled by the private sector. This needn't be a bad thing.
8. Worker-Owned (and Community-Owned) Means of Production. This is A's pet issue -- he's written a book on the subject, which I have but haven't gotten around to -- and he's on to something here. Employee-ownership solves many of the interest conflicts that threaten to tear up companies. For starters, there's no need for a union or union busting when both sides are the same. Once both labor and management understand that the only way to make money is to compete more effectively in the market -- as opposed to picking each other's pockets -- they can actually work together, and the added effectiveness is surprising. The games between owners and management also vanish, starting with the 400X CEO salaries -- a CEO may be able to scam a board, but not the employees. I worked for a start-up with a substantial employee interest, then saw it sold out to another company, and the difference in productivity and morale and before long profitability was astonishing.
9. Planned New Communities. A&W assert that the US population will grow to 400 million by mid-century and 1 billion by 2100, so they urge planning to combat sprawl. My first sanity check would be to look at what can be done to lower those population figures. No other rich country is growing like that, and developing countries with half a shot at actually developing are aiming at much lower growth rates. My second sanity check is that some factors are real likely to start limiting sprawl, like rising gas prices, and the need to keep enough farmland to feed all those people. Some fairly simple changes in tax laws would turn things around real fast, too. Planned communities have a checkered past -- I can think of some that work, many more that don't. Denser cities, which would be a more productive way of accommodating population growth, are hard, if indeed possible, to plan. (Nothing has convinced me that Jane Jacobs is wrong on how cities grow.)
A Twenty-First-Century Regional America. Argues that the US should break up into regional super-states. I don't see the value, but then I don't live in a blue state trying to secede from red state hell. If there is any merit to the idea, maybe Canada will try it first and work some of the bugs out. (Canada is actually a lot more regionally unhomogeneous than the US is, despite all the red-blue nonsense.)
A&W admit this isn't an exhaustive list. They also mention public investment, fair trade, a living wage, raising CAFE standards, civil liberties and civil rights, eliminating world poverty. They don't go for anything as mundane as making it illegal to bribe politicians, or as far out as decriminalizing recreational drugs. The next week's issue of The Nation followed up with several members of Congress making more concrete proposals -- more measured and practical ones, but not crippled by compromise.
I have an outline for a book on politics, and one of the main sections -- after several on history and and blundering goosesteppers on the American right -- will attempt to put some flesh onto an old Rush Limbaugh title, "The Way Things Ought to Be." Bold ideas such as I discussed here figure large in this section -- this is a big part of why I've written all this -- but it starts from thinking about small ideas: the first one is trust, or maybe it's respect. I think you have to work your way out from these basics, and if you don't, you're likely to get lost. Despite a flirtation with AuH2O in 1964, my background is mostly on the left, but I find reflexive leftism to be as useless and dangerous as much of what comes out of the right (idea-wise; if we have to have hate speech, I'll still side with my tribe). But I'm inclined to view the political agenda that we need as one of centering, and in this I don't mean splitting the difference between left and right. I mean centering oneself on the real problems and on viable solutions. This means that you start with small changes that nudge us in the right directions. It means that you don't fight with nature; you try to get it to work for you. I don't have much of this figured out, but I have come up with some things that make sense, and I think I'm moving in the right direction. That's the method. We'll see how it works.
For one example of this, see my peace plan for the Israeli conflict, where I argue that Israel and the Palestinians are incapable of resolving their conflict on their own, and that the continuation of the conflict is so damaging (not just to them but to all of us) that the world needs to make a concerted effort to bring this to a satisfactory conclusion. If any conclusion from Hamas' election victory is obvious is that my argument is right and my plan is the only way out. Thus far I've seen essentially no interest in the plan or anything like it. And that's very disappointing, but I don't know what else to do. I suspect that Jane Jacobs is right: that dark ages are not just coming, they're already here. All I can do is keep my little candle burning, in hopes that someone else might glimpse it. It may be that that's all any of us can do.
Wednesday, January 25. 2006
I haven't done a news roundup in quite a while, and won't be doing one today. Last Christmas a dear friend (my mentor, really), who took a serious interest in politics back in the '50s (a decade before me), got a degree in political science, and has taught ever since, said she had never seen such a mess. Those words have only grown more true. Just as a trivial for instance, a series of local stories: cops practicing taser guns on each other; cop stops car from Texas and sniffs out $2.5 million in cocaine; cops call for more drug-sniffing dogs; Segdwick county jail is so full that every week they pick out 6-8 prisoners and truck them to other jails in rural Kansas; meanwhile various politicos are trying to outdo one another in their various schemes to corral "sexual predators," some of which are teenagers and some are old enough to draw social security. None of these stories is terribly interesting or important in their own right, but together they add up to an absurdity: that we'll never be safe until we get everyone else locked up. Somehow it never dawns on people that when everyone is locked up they're likely to be locked up too, only now surrounded by nothing but deranged criminals -- and cops who get their kicks firing tasers.
Still, when you get to the national/world news you get into even more absurd stories. Take Iran. (Please!) Last week the NY Times' Week in Review section started with "Why Not A Strike On Iran?" The answer, of course, is that to do so would be the dumbest of a long string of superdumb things that the US has done to Iran over the last sixty years, but the article mostly spends its space boo-hooing that such a simple solution wouldn't work. Then, as if that article was too rooted in reality, you can flip to the last page of the section to read Niall Ferguson's prophetic "The Origins of the Great War of 2007 -- and How It Could Have Been Prevented":
Ferguson, who wrote that silly book about how British imperialism was good for the world because it wasn't as bad as German imperialism would have been, blames this tragic turn of events on -- drum roll, please -- Condoleezza Rice, who foolishly convinced Bush to rely on diplomacy when what was clearly called for was pre-emptive war (i.e., the Bush Doctrine). Needless to say, in doing so, he ignores all the other contingencies that supposedly will lead to the war, like a nuclear-armed Israel ruled by that nutcase Netanyahu and all those American bases in still-occupied Iraq.
Then after having so advanced our thinking about the unthinkable, in Tuesday the Times published a column by Flynt Leverett called "The Gulf Between Us," which solved all those pesky diplomatic problems in a sudden flash of genius. The idea here is that it really doesn't matter that Israel or the US or anyone else has nuclear weapons; all we need is to reassure Iran that it would be safe in a "nuclear-weapons-free Gulf":
Now, the guy who figured all this out worked in the National Security Council up to 2003 and is currently employed by the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy, so presumably he knows something about Iran and the Middle East, but he seems to be remarkably blind about the United States and what it's done around the Persian Gulf in the last 50-60 years. Why, for instance, should Iran trust the US to protect it from Israel? Is this because the US has shown remarkable courage in standing up to Israel when the latter has invaded its neighbors, bombed more distant countries like Iraq and Tunisia, and sent teams of assassins all around Europe? Is it because the US has shown such a sincere interest in the rights and welfare of the Iranian people? Like when the US CIA orchestrated the coup that deposed a popular, democratically elected Iranian government in 1953 in order to reverse Iran's nationalization of its own oil. Or how when Iraq invaded Iran the US shipped arms, including chemical weapons, to Iraq, prolonging a war that left a million Iranians dead. Or little things, like that Iranian airliner the US shot down, or how Bush so generously named Iran part of the Axis of Evil. But even if Iran were inclined to accept America's good intentions, there are still some open questions on how effective and benevolent US protection really is -- cf. Iraq for some rather troubling examples. And then there's those other little gotchas: inspections, human rights, help against terrorist groups (presumably including Hezbollah, even though Israel is conveniently excluded from the no nukes zone).
And if Iran doesn't buy this deal, what then? Seems like we're back to the first article about that military strike -- estimates are that it would take 1,000 sorties -- where the first article concluded that "the cost is so high it's not called an option." So that leaves Bush's knickers in quite a bind: his choices are to do something that won't work (the strike) or to try to do something that can't be done (the diplomacy). What makes this all the more ridiculous is that the unsolvable problem is one that he hallucinated in the first place, based on premises that he mostly created in the first place (along with his bed-ridden buddy, the "man of peace" in Jerusalem). Had he pushed through Saudi Prince (now King) Abdullah's simple, Arab League-backed solution to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, Israel would be accepted by all of its neighbors and Israel's nuclear arsenal would just be an atavism, not a threat. Had he followed up that diplomatic solution with a sensible international approach to Iraq, including coalition-building with Iran and Syria, he might have brokered a deal to ease Saddam Hussein out of power and turn Iraq into a democracy without the taint of occupation. And had he ripped up David Frum's Axis of Evil speech he would have benefitted from a rock-solid coalition from Morocco to Pakistan to clean up the last of the Al-Qaeda diehards. And with all this strife fueled by heavy-handed, might-makes-right botch of the War on Terrorism that Bush and Sharon convinced themselves would work, Iran's assertion that all they want to do is have a peaceful nuclear power resource to fall back on when the oil runs out would be perfectly credible.
So here we are with this unsolvable problem that needn't have existed in the first place. Worse still, even given the total botch, it's hardly a real problem. Lots of countries have nuclear weapons, but nobody can use them. Sure, they make the risks of war dramatically worse, but there's always a simple solution to that: don't start the war. With all the bad will in the world, the US and the Soviet Union avoided escalating their cold war to anything approaching nuclear levels. Nor has anyone else followed suit. Even Netanyahu and Ahmadinejad, nutcases that they both are, are extremely unlikely to be so careless. The only thing that happens once Iran can pose a nuclear threat is that people think twice before they give Axis of Evil speeches. I don't like the idea of Iran having nuclear weapons -- each such weapons, ours included, adds a tiny element of risk for all of us. But I won't lose any sleep over it either. It's just one of those things that bullies drive nations to -- the only thing to really worry about is that the US won't back off once it's too late. But you don't hear much about pre-emptive strikes on North Korea since they seem to have developed nuclear bombs, so even Bush can backpeddle a bit when there's no other course. The risk with Iran is that Bush may still think he can risk it. Too bad the NY Times isn't a voice of reason on this issue. But that's just part of the mess we're in.
Tuesday, January 24. 2006
A couple of movies. Guess I don't have to wait until I get too many.
Movie: Rumor Has It. I haven't checked everywhere, but Rob Reiner's comic takeoff on The Graduate seems to be universally loathed . . . except by yours truly. I doubt that the reason is that I'm the only one who's never seen The Graduate, although that's sure to be one correlation. A more promising correlation is that I've never watched that TV series Jennifer Aniston was in for decades, so I'm one of the few people who think of her as primarily a movie actress, instead of as whatshername. Perhaps her role here is too much the same? Don't know. Although she's fine as the star, she's not the reason to tune in. More to the point is that Shirley MacLaine and Kevin Costner delight in parodies of themselves. And that the setup gets turned into Ionesco, but still manages to score points on Pasadena sociology -- "this is what you get when you give people everything they want and then leave them alone with it" -- and high tech biz-wiz -- cf. Costner's use of Che Guevara. And that Richard Jenkins is so solid as the father. Don't care for the ending, where Mark Ruffalo substitutes dense for solid. B+
Movie: Brokeback Mountain. I read so little fiction that it's very rare I see a movie based on something I've previously read, but this is an exception. I picked up E. Annie Proulx's set of Wyoming stories because I opened it up in a bookstore to a page that was so matter of fact about the cattle industry that it appealed to my nonfiction preferences. But then as I read it I was constantly amazed by her turns of phrase -- "tangled legs" is a verb that says what "made love" barely aludes to. Since this particular story is so short, after seeing the movie I read it again. This got me thinking about two things: one is the relationship between prose and movies; the other is the relationship between stories and movies. When I first heard about how long the movie is compared to how short the story is, I figured the screenwriters must have added a lot of shit. But it turns out that they added very little -- arguably, all they did was unpack it. Lureen (Jack Twist's wife) may have gotten more added than anyone, but little more than is encoded in Jack's offhand commentary. The ratio of prose to movie time is greater than usual because Proulx's prose is so dense, and the expansion is easier than usual because Proulx sketched out so much time in so few episodes, but the rule of thumb should be that storywise movies are never much larger than short stories, if only writers could figure out how to keep their stories short. This confirms something I've noticed with John Sayles: when he has an idea too large to fit into a movie (and he's been known to pack a lot into a movie) he skips the movie and just writes a novel (and I don't recall that he's ever filmed one of his novels). The other aspect of the prose-movie relationship is that while the screenwriters kept the dialogue intact, they didn't keep any of the connecting prose; indeed Proulx's voice vanishes from the movie. And while I love that prose, the movie works much better without it. Narration is a necessary part of novels because it frames the point of view and provides the connections, but in movies your eyes do the work. In bigger stories, especially when adapting from novels, narration compresses, helping to cover more ground -- also tempting because it conserves some of the author's best words. But in this movie, getting rid of the narration is what lets the story unfold on its own terms. I can't recall another movie where the screenwriting adaption works so well. (But then I don't have many examples where I know both ends.) As for the story matter, the Sayles equation is again relevant. This story could have been developed expressly for the movies, in that it's the right size, but it couldn't have been, because nobody who conceives of movies seems to be able to think of stories like this. I'll leave that as a naked assertion. But one thing I'll add is that a big part of the reason this movie works so well is that it's so solid as a story. It's not about love, or masculinity, or injustice, nor is it about gay cowboys, although that works nicely as a marketing angle, as does the scenery and all that. A
At this point I'd slot Brokeback Mountain into #2 on my list, after A History of Violence. The latter has somewhat more visceral impact, but the former is probably the better story.
Monday, January 23. 2006
Another week's jazz prospecting. I should have moved into finish mode, rating previously unrateds and writing up previously rateds. Some personal distractions have made that hard, plus I understand that there are scheduling problems at the Voice -- but mostly the Voice people are locked down in Pazz & Jop mode, so haven't paid me much attention. So the usual second section is bare this week, and the first is mostly indecisive. New 2006 releases have started to come in, and some of these are advances, a way off from release.
Michel Camilo: Rhapsody in Blue (2005 , Telarc): George Gershwin is enough of a staple in the world of jazz that one tends to forget about his contributions to classical music. But this record, with Camilo playing with the Barcelona Symphony Orchestra, is pure Gershwin classicism. I never liked classical music, and this repeatedly reminds me why. I do have a high opinion of Camilo's pianoship, but this doesn't remind me why. C-
Duduka Da Fonseca: Samba Jazz in Black and White (2005 , Zoho): A Brazilian drummer, Da Fonseca has worked steadily since the late '80s, with two albums under his own name and a couple more as Trio da Paz. This is basic samba, the beat light, with a soft melodic edge from a good quintet including reedist Anat Cohen. A very pleasant record. B+(**)
Robert Stillman's Horses (2004 , Mill Pond): Described as "seven instrumental pieces," this is jazz mostly by being instrumental and led by a saxophonist, but with its gentle, relatively uniform beat and atmospheric milieu it isn't all that far removed from sountrack territory, or even new age. Clarinet, piano or organ, bass, some guitar, various drums. Rather slight, but nice. B+(*)
Ran Blake: All That Is Tied (2006, Tompkins Square): Solo piano has never held much appeal for me, especially when we're talking pianists without any boogie-woogie up their sleeves. I have Blake's previous Painted Rhythm (1985) volumes on the shelf somewhere, one a B, the other still unrated. Both are 4-star in the Penguin Guide, which has a special soft spot for solo piano. This one is slow and deliberate, and I didn't follow it well, but enough of this caught my ear to keep it in play. [B+(*)]
Charles Gayle: Time Zones (2006, Tompkins Square): This, too, is solo piano, all originals. Gayle is legendary for his tenor sax, raw and ferocious, an unreconstructed follower of Ayler. But as his '90s albums started to grow repetitive and tedious, he started working on other instruments, including piano and violin, sometimes with startling results. This winds up having more dynamic range than the Ran Blake solo, and more finnesse than you'd figure. Usual caveats and confusions. One thing I like about Gayle on piano is that he can't overblow, so his music doesn't get swallowed up in his distortion. But it's surprising how serene this can get. [B+(**)]
Matthew Shipp: One (2005 , Thirsty Ear): Yet another solo piano album. Strikes me as less exploratory than his early ones, when he frequently worked either solo or in duos. That leads me to think he's more into touching base than charting new territory, but that makes sense given how far he's moved since he started directing Thirsty Ear's Blue Series. But like the other solo piano albums here, I'm torn between disinterest and lack of understanding. Solo piano albums are often justified as freeing the pianist from constraints imposed by other group members, but isn't freedom supposed to be freer than this? [B+(*)]
Nick Colionne: Keepin' It Cool (2005 , Narada Jazz): Smooth guitarist, "his Wes Montgomery-inspired style style accented with blues, rock, and R&B." But then who isn't inspired by Montgomery? Colionne is actually better than Montgomery, at least in the latter's pop-pimp phase (which is the germane one), and the funk filler never crowds out the guitar. One vocal piece, a rather nice "Rainy Night in Georgia," in case the radio folks gotta have a vocal. Smooth jazzers never miss a trick. B
Jason Miles: What's Going On? Songs of Marvin Gaye (2006, Narada Jazz): I'm of two minds on this. One is that it's a rather slinky groove album. The other is that any time I want to hear Marvin Gaye songs I can always play Marvin Gaye. Working of an advance, so I don't know who does what. I'm going to hold this back until I can look up what Herb Alpert, Chiara Civello, Bobby Caldwell, and Marcus Miller are responsible for. Then maybe I'll have a clear idea just how upset I am. But don't wait up. [B-]
Eric Darius: Just Getting Started (2006, Narada Jazz): Irrepressibly upbeat, pure sax disco. Cute hype: "Eric's awesome talent and unjaded enthusiasm have made him the undusiputed darling of the genre." Wasn't paying enough attention to sort out some fine points, but then this isn't the sort of jazz you have to pay attention to. [B+(*)]
Gianluca Petrella: Indigo 4 (2006, Blue Note): This is an advance, release due Feb. 21. I know nothing about the leader, except that he plays trombone. Know nothing about who else is on the album, except that there is a saxophonist I want to find out more about. Good solid postbop, harmonically complex but not overbaked. Looking forward to learning more. [B+(***)]
Cuong Vu: It's Mostly Residual (2005, ArtistShare): This showed up on some year-end lists before I tracked it down. Vu is a trumpeter who shows up in some interesting contexts -- Dave Douglas, Chris Speed, Assif Tsahar, Satoko Fujii, Andy Laster, Myra Melford, Pat Metheny, Laurie Anderson. I'm having trouble getting a handle on this rather densely layered music, but in prospecting indecision itself is (somewhat) noteworthy. It's interesting, in play, could develop. We'll see. [B+(**)]
The Omer Avital Group: Asking No Permission (1996 , Smalls): Subtitled "The Smalls Years: Volume One." Avital is an Israeli bassist who played regularly at Smalls -- Thursdays, according to the notes here, this is one of those Thursdays. His group here includes drummer Ali Jackson and four saxophonists -- Mark Turner, Greg Tardy, Myron Walden, Charles Owens -- working out their bebop moves. B+(*)
Odyssey the Band: Back in Time (2005 , Pi): James "Blood" Ulmer's records on Hyena have hewed ever closer to straight blues -- so much so that as much as I like Birthright I couldn't bring myself to give it JCG space. Despite two vocals, this is still definitely a jazz group: a trio with violinist Charles Burnham and drummer Warren Benbow, which refers back to Ulmer's 1983 violin-drenched Odyssey and Odyssey the Band's 1998 Reunion. Not sure how this will sort out, but its immediate appeal is obvious and certain. [B+(***)]
Mike Tucker: Collage (2005 , www.tuckerjazz.com): Young (26, presumably that means b. 1979; how hard would it be to just say that?) Boston saxophonist (doesn't specify, but all I see and hear is tenor) on first album, leading a quartet with Leo Genovese more on Fender Rhodes than piano, plus bass and drums I've never heard of. The notes cite Michael Brecker as an influence, but being from Boston he's also played with George Garzone. Strikes me as somewhere between the two, definitely on the Sonny side of the great Rollins-Coltrane divide. First half of the album is upbeat, ebullient even, with Fender Rhodes, nothing special but quite a bit of fun. Then he throws us a curve with a slow one called, of all things, "Bird Lives" -- Genovese switches to piano there. Then things get more complicated with "Double Mambo" and "Space Suite" -- latter shows off his education, as opposed to his talent. He's got chops; may go somewhere with them, but it's probably too early to tell. [B+(**)]
David "Fathead" Newman: Cityscape (2005 , High Note): I never got a chance to say so before, but Newman's I Remember Brother Ray was the best of a spate of Ray Charles tributes that came out following the movie, the hit duets album, and all that. Not a great record, of course, so that's sort of a backhanded complement, but to the best of my knowledge, Newman's never made a great record, at least under his ownname, in the first half-century of his recording plenty of good ones -- this is touted as "the beginning of David Newman's second half-century," if you're wondering about the wording. With three more horns for coloring (two brass and Howard Johnson's bari sax), a little flute from the leader, and songs ranging from "A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing" to "Goldfinger," this one is something of a mess -- but occasionally a beautiful mess. Highlights include a big solo on "Here Comes Sonny Man" and a lovely, heartfelt "It Was a Very Good Year." No doubt. B+(**)
Larry Willis Trio: The Big Push (2004 , High Note): The accompanying hype claims that Willis has played on over 300 records, which for a pianist, and one who's not all that old (b. 1940), strikes me as an awful lot. (I can think of a handful of bassists and drummers in that range, but aside from Oscar Peterson I wouldn't bet on any other pianists, and I'm not sure about him.) But then Willis has always been a guy who just blends in and does the job. But he's been far less prolific as a leader: AMG lists 18 albums for him. This is a bright, cheery piano trio, a little more mainstream than usual. I don't have the measure of this one yet, but I know that one thing I like in a piano trio is a rhythm section that carries their weight, and he's got one here in Buster Williams and Al Foster. Wouldn't be surprised if they've appeared on 300 records too. [B+(**)]
Ernie Andrews: How About Me (2005 , High Note): I don't know whether Andrews ever sang for Count Basie, but he fits the type -- an easy-going blues crooner, somewhere between Joe Williams on the slick side and Al Hibbler on the weird side. He's closing in on 80 now, with a career stretching back to the '50s, but his best regarded albums came out much later, on Muse, which means with his producer and guest here, Houston Person. [B+(*)]
Larry Goldings: Quartet (2006, Palmetto): He's one of the better regarded organists to emerge in the '90s, so the first surprise here is to hear him take the first two songs on piano. He also plays various other keyboard instruments, plus "glock" to add to the toy instrument sound. Ben Allison and Matt Wilson are solid as usual. The fourth corner of the quartet is trumpeter John Sneider, providing a thin, shrill complement to the organ, but since mostly this isn't an organ record, it often sounds thin and shrill. The music wanders all over the map, adding to the inconsistency. It's mostly slow, dulling the invention. Madeleine Peyroux joins for a rendition of "Hesitation Blues" that is so hesitant it's almost a parody, with Sneider sounding especially anemic. The against-type abstraction might be considered a brave experiment, but discoveries are scarce. B-
Friday, January 20. 2006
John Brown has a piece at TomDispatch on the War on Terror as an Indian War. He cites ten reasons for viewing it that way, starting with the obsessions of Robert D. Kaplan and Max Boot. As Kaplan has pointed out several times, the US military still goes to school on America's Indian Wars, so the notion is constantly on their minds, even as Bush tries to dodge the cowboy metaphors. The points Brown makes are generally valid, but he doesn't get to a few more.
First, there is a pretty major book waiting to be written on how the idea of America's subjugation of the Indians has been adopted as a model or ideal for colonial conquests in the 20th century. The two main examples of this are Nazi Germany and Israel. I've seen passing references in both cases, but have yet to see anyone dig very deeply into the subject. To do so won't tell us much about the actual Indian wars, but would give us an inkling of how such ideas travel, and how they fit into other colonialist mindsets.
Second, we need to look at why the America-Indian model doesn't, and can't, translate well to the old world. There are two aspects of this. One is that the American subjugation of the Indians was incidentally but cumulatively genocidal, at least to the point that it resulted in an overwhelming (like 100-to-1) demographic advantage for the settlers. The word "incidental" is also significant, in that this degree of genocide was achieved without (for the most part -- exceptions are easy to find) a conscious plan to do so. This matters because it's politically difficult to embark on a genocidal program -- the main examples of such programs were decided in secret during the chaos of war. The second aspect is that in the end the US granted full citizenship to all surviving Indians in 1924, and this, rather than the exhaustion of the 1890s, is what has kept American Indians from resuming armed struggle in the 20th century.
This just goes to show that the Injun Country metaphors are not a workable model for the War on Terror. The dilemma is especially striking for Israel, which despite extraordinary efforts cannot muster a demographic majority such that it can integrate the native Palestinian population in a permanently marginal role. The same is true on a global scale for the US and the many people that the Bush warriors seem intent on uniting against us.
Thursday, January 19. 2006
Grace Murray Hopper used to say that it's better to try something and apologize later if it fails than to do nothing until you can get permission. Even though she was an admiral in the US Navy, presumably she was talking about relatively benign acts, not starting wars. She was a computing pioneer -- most famously, she invented the bug, or maybe one should say she discovered it; at least she named it. Her principle has been handed down by generations of hackers throttled by lethargic, risk-adverse bureaucrats. It normal everyday business it has some merit, but there are areas where the risks are so large, unfathomable even, that caution is the only sane choice. One of those cases was when someone at US CENTCOM operating a Predator drone over Pakistan fired a Hellfire missile at a house suspected of sheltering Al Qaeda ideologue Zayman Al-Zawahiri, killing seventeen but not its target.
Many questions remain unanswered, including the "solid intelligence" that was cited in justification and, indeed, the whole chain of command responsible for the incident. Most likely this was not just a whim on the part of the operator, but you never know. One of the stock Neocon arguments is that the US had become far too cautious about flexing its military power. A particular target was the Powell Doctrine, which in its insistence on overwhelming military force, popular support, and a clear exit strategy was seen as pure bureaucratic obstruction. Max Boot's book about America's "small wars" not only took aim at Powell. Boot went further in insisting that good things happen when the US goes to war even without a clear plan or strategy. One result of the Neocon rush to power has been that we hardly give a second thought to taking pot shots at terrorists, and Zawahiri is as prime as prime targets get. So had they nailed him, no one in power in America would demand an apology.
On the other hand, at first blush this looks like an act of war against Pakistan. So I have to wonder just what the deal is between the US and Pakistani strong man Pervez Musharaf. This isn't likely to be something Musharaf would go out of his way to publicize, given what the choices are: either this was an unprovoked attack on Pakistani soil (showing that Musharaf is unable to defend Pakistan), or Musharaf approved the attack (killing Pakistani citizens), either specifically or by some form of blank check. Any way you slice it, this looks bad for Musharaf, and more generally for the US alliance with Pakistan. Sure, it may blow over -- thousands in Pakistan protested, but had the government felt pressured, we might have seen millions protesting. But the fact itself overcomes plausible deniability: unless Musharaf protests, he's conceding that the US can kill Pakistanis any time some American decides to shoot first and ask questions later.
But there's more at risk here than that we might tick off a nation of 160 million muslims and a few dozen atomic bombs. The lesson goes far beyond Pakistan, and not just to the world of Islam, but to the entire world, who are reminded that we don't care how many of "them" we kill to achieve our own politically convenient goals. (Only Israel practices unilateral attacks like this -- indeed, that's one of the reasons Neocons are so smitten with Israel.) But it also reinforces the tendency of America's security forces to act without controls or scruples. Many Americans have come to accept the notion that we can win this "war on terrorism" by simply killing a few evil people. This is a fundamental misunderstanding of the problem. Left unchecked and unchallenged, we just dig deeper holes for ourselves.
Tuesday, January 17. 2006
Jazz prospecting heats up this week. Mostly new stuff, a good portion of which are 2006 records, some advances of records not out yet. It's been a week with a lot of distractions, which may explain why there are so many unfinalized grades (in brackets). Next week there should be fewer first passes and more finals as I start to wrap up.
Luis Mario Ochoa & Friends: Cimarrón (2005, Cuban Music Productions): Small print on front cover describes this as "Cuban Jazz Fusion." One problem I have with latin jazz is figuring out whether "jazz" in that context means anything useful to me. Ochoa plays guitar, arranges, and sings on half of the tracks. The band includes a strong horn section, piano, electric bass, and several helpings of percussion, with some shuffling of personnel and guests -- Paquito D'Rivera gets a mention on the cover, but only appears on one song. The guitar is worth listening for. The vocals less so, although Ochoa's "spanglish" on "Old Devil Moon" caught my ear. But the obvious jazz spots are rare. B+(*)
Hiromi: Spiral (2005 , Telarc): This strikes me much like her previous record Brain did. Both are piano trios on the left edge of mainstream, carefully thought out, sharply recorded. On both she dabbles with electronics and makes it work. Other than respectful admiration, I don't have much more to say at this point. Brain made my Honorable Mention list back when I wasn't so backlogged. This one probably won't given the increased competition, but it's every bit as solid. [B+(*)]
Andrew Hill: Time Lines (2006, Blue Note): This is Hill's second return to Blue Note, following his one-shot 1989 album Eternal Spirit. During his first stretch with Blue Note, Hill established himself as one of the most important pianists to emerge in the '60s, but then he slipped into obscurity with the eclipse of jazz in the '70s, staging a comeback over the last decade. This is a quintet with Charles Tolliver on trumpet and Greg Tardy on reeds, a typical line-up for Hill in the '60s, as it lets him broaden his compositional palette while still keeping the piano central. Still working on this. No rush, since release date is 02-21. [B+(***)]
Miles Davis: The Cellar Door Sessions 1970 (1970 , Columbia/Legacy, 6CD): Virtually every jazz critic who compiled a top ten list for 2005 picked one or more records by guys long dead: Thelonious Monk/John Coltrane, At Carnegie Hall; Dizzy Gillespie/Charlie Parker, Town Hall; John Coltrane, Live at the Half Note. These items continue a well established pattern, which is that we view jazz as a music of the past, played by legends who with few exceptions are no longer with us. (Sonny Rollins also got votes for an unearthed 2001 concert.) But Miles Davis is the reigning champion of past legends, probably the best-selling widely respected jazz man of the past 10, 20, 30 years. Sony/Legacy has been mining Davis tapes assiduously for quite a while now, releasing two 6-CD boxes just this year. The reason Davis didn't make the year-end lists is that these are large boxes expanded from a core of previously released music, whereas the above-listed are one- or two-disc sets with no previously released music (the Coltrane has been bootlegged). But he fits the pattern. However, I have a different theory how this works. For one thing, all of these musicians come from the 1945-60 period, the bebop era if you like, where there is much consensus about who's great. (Anyone who hated bebop fled the club when Bird got on stage, leaving those who stayed free to define what jazz means.) Those greats are the revered founders, and their devotees have an apparently insatiable desire to study them. On the other hand, no such consensus exists for anything that came after 1960 -- new thing, fusion, even Marsalis-style conservatism. Even Davis catches flack once you get past his late-'60s quintet, although his early fusion period (1969-74) has been explored at considerable length, with five 2-CD live sets, box-length expansions of In a Silent Way, Bitches Brew and Jack Johnson, and now this box, which provides for raw context for the first of the live sets to be released, the heavily edited Live-Evil. A little more than half of Live-Evil was selected from the fourth of four nights Davis played at DC's Cellar Door shortly before Christmas 1970. The fourth night was notable as the one night with John McLaughlin in the band. A-
Bob Rockwell Quartet: Bob's Ben: A Salute to Ben Webster (2004 , Stunt): A simple idea, with Rockwell's original "Prelude for Ben" followed by the usual standards done in the usual style. Rockwell doesn't aim for Webster's trademark vibrato, but otherwise he's dead on. Not hard, perhaps, given that everything is down tempo, but for such a simple idea I'm not aware of anyone else trying it. And a rich, mellifluous album of ballads is always welcome in these parts. Grade not final because I don't want to get suckered, but also because I want to play it again. [A-]
Michael Blake: Blake Tartare (2002 , Stunt): This album by the ex-Lounge Lizards saxophonist starts and ends surprisingly soft. In between three cuts with guest guitarist Teddy Kumpel pick up a groove, and covers from Sun Ra and Charles Mingus show some daring and muscle -- especially the latter. Haven't found whatever thread ties it all together yet -- assuming there is one -- but it's an interesting and enjoyable jumble. [B+(**)]
Jens Winther European Quintet: Concord (2005, Stunt): Same gestalt as Scott Anderson's Nia Quintet: trumpet-led, sax, piano, bass, drums; not quite as shiny, or conventional as the case may be. One plus here is that bassist Palle Danielsson has more drive, and that's what skids everyone else around the curves. Another strong point here is pianist Antonio Farao, who carries the slower pieces. [B+(*)]
Sam Rivers/Ben Street/Kresten Osgood: Violet Violets (2004 , Stunt): Billed as the second part of a 2-CD set, so I'm annoyed that I didn't get the first part too. Also no details on who plays what where. Bassist Street and drummer Osgood are givens, but Rivers sounds like he's playing a clarinet on the first cut, then returns to tenor sax for most of the rest. He has a very distinctive sound, both rhythm and phrasing, and it works especially well in this small group. Very nice. [B+(***)]
The Thing: Live at Blå (2003 , Smalltown Superjazz): Two long pieces, each a medley of three parts, with credits ranging from Joe McPhee to the White Stripes. The Thing is a free jazz trio that makes a lot of noise, with Atomic's bassist and drummer, Ingebrigt Håker Flaten and Paal Nilssen-Love and reed man Mats Gustafsson, mostly on baritone sax. All three should be well known by now for their various collaborations with Ken Vandermark. I have a lot more trouble with Gustafsson than Vandermark, possibly for the reasons the latter spelled out in his liner notes to the former's Blues -- that Americans play out of the blues, whereas Europeans play with the blues -- although I'm more inclined to think of it as being that Gustafsson swings a heavier axe and makes much more of a mess. Still, at his best his mess can move you mightily. B+(**)
Free Fall: Amsterdam Funk (2004 , Smalltown Superjazz): This is Ken Vandermark's clone of the Jimmy Giuffre Trio (named for Giuffre's most famous album), so the lineup is clarinet, piano (Håvard Wiik for Paul Bley) and bass (Ingebrigt Håker Flaten for Steve Swallow). I've played this several times but haven't made much sense out of it -- possibly because the mappings are off, and possibly because I've never gotten much out of Guiffre's trio. This has spots of interest -- mostly when they pick up the pace and Wiik pounds out some rhythm. It also has quiet spots which develop into austere atmospherics. B+(*)
Quinsin Nachoff: Magic Numbers (2004 , Songlines): This is a saxophone trio, with Nachoff playing tenor and soprano along with Mark Helias and Jim Black, plus a string quartet. But this isn't one of those sax-with-string albums: the strings carry the load of the complex, quirky music, with the sax melting into the background. I don't find the heavy strings very appealing, but I suspect there's more here than I can work through. B
Chris Gestrin/Ben Monder/Dylan van der Schyff: The Distance (2004 , Songlines): A cute trick here is that the front cover, back cover, and spine list the artists in different orders. I've gone with the front cover -- piano-guitar-drums is the more conventional order, and Gestrin has a slight composition edge over van der Schyff. There's a sort of abstract modernism to the work, short melodic runs with odd blips, but the recording level is so low I'm having a lot of trouble following it. Will give it another shot later. [B-]
Bill Bruford/Tim Garland: Earthworks Underground Orchestra (2005 , Summerfold): I decided to pan this, but wasn't quite ready, so I hit replay and now I'm confused. Garland plays saxes, bass clarinet and flute, all with considerable chops, but no clear style -- not that I'm familiar enough with him to say that with certainty. Bruford was England's premier prog rock drummer until he moved over into jazz. His groups have had various sounds over the years, depending on who he has up front. This group is significantly expanded from the last Earthworks group. Where Garland was the only horn, now he's joined by two trumpets, one or two trombones, baritone sax, and alto or soprano sax -- two of which also play flute. Also piano and electric or acoustic bass. All together they get an extravagantly lush sound with fluid dynamics. I can't pigeonhole it, other than to say that they're moving into rather advanced big band territory. I should be more impressed, but at this stage I'm more confused. [B+(*)]
Paul Motian Band: Garden of Eden (2004 , ECM): This would be the further evolution of Motian's Electric Bebop Band, with electric bass, three guitars, and two saxophones. Starts with two Mingus tunes -- if "Pithecanthropus Erectus" doesn't get you, "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat" sure will -- and ends with Monk and Bird, with mostly originals in between. Still, all this firepower -- the saxophonists are Chris Cheek and Tony Malaby -- wind up put to work on texture, with Motian slippery as ever, at least until he takes a surprising drum solo toward the end. I've played this several times, and still I'm not sure what I think of it. But then that's pretty much true of everything I've heard by Motian to date -- ten albums plus a compilation, all more or less where I'm guessing this one will end up. [B+(**)]
Manu Katché: Neighbourhood (2004 , ECM): Don't really know anything about him, other than that he plays drums, wrote all of the songs here, and leveraged his label to put together a marvelous group here. Actually, he didn't have to pull too many strings, since one got him three-fourths of Tomasz Stanko's quartet (didn't need the drummer), and another got him Jan Garbarek. Will have to do some research before I finalize this, and will have to convince myself that an album this simply artful and, for lack of a better word, beautiful makes the grade on that alone. Could be. [A-]
Ben Goldberg Quintet: The Door, the Hat, the Chair, the Fact (2006, Cryptogramophone). Don't know when this was recorded -- I'm working off one of those cheap, stupid "for promotional use only" advances, although given how annoying this label's regular packaging has become, that may not be a total step backwards. So I need to get some more info, but for now I understand that this is meant as a tribute to Steve Lacy, and that Goldberg and violinist Carla Kihlstedt are also members of Tin Hat (evidently no longer a trio, something else to check up on). The quintet also includes Rob Sudduth (tenor sax), Devin Hoff (bass), and Ches Smith (drums). Don't know the latter, but the first striking thing here is the rhythm, which plods along sure-footedly, opening up space for the front-line instruments, which complement each other nicely. Need more research, but this is a very solid album. [A-]
Erik Friedlander: Prowl (2006, Cryptogramophone): Ditto the label comments on Ben Goldberg. This one's a quartet, with Friedlander on cello, Andy Laster on alto sax or clarinet, and Stomu and Satoshi Takeishi on electric bass and drums. The latter are hard to overpraise -- I've noticed both separately, but never together before. Laster is also an apposite choice, deepening and developing Friedlander's music in many intriguing ways. Cello is turning into a fascinating jazz instrument. It's not just a higher-pitched bass; cellists have started to model their instrument on roles guitarists have developed over the last two decades. Choice cut is "A Closer Walk With Thee," which starts fractured and slowly assembles itself, building volume until it becomes powerfully moving. A-
Paul Bollenback: Brightness of Being (2005 , Elefant Dreams): Too clever by half, or maybe more. Bollenback's guitar is a sweet and lyrical constant, but his wide range of pop songs and classical pieces, his use of three saxophonists with no common ground (Gary Thomas, Tim Garland, Fathead Newman), and the occasional breathy intrusions of vocalist Christ McNulty make this a major exercise in kitchen sinkism. Choice cut: "You Don't Know Me." B+(*)
And these are final grades/notes on records I put back the first time around.
Kenny Barron Trio: The Perfect Set: Live at Bradley's II (1996 , Sunnyside): With Ray Drummond and Ben Riley, as perfect a modern jazz trio as you can find. Haven't heard the previously released first set, but my inside source tells me this is the better of the two. As befits Riley, this closes with two Monk tunes, and one of Barron's originals is decidedly Monkish. Just what you'd expect, which is to say it merits the faint complaint of "no surprises." B+(**)
Scott Anderson/Nia Quintet: End of Time (2004 , BluJazz): Skillfully executed postbop in the classic quintet format with Daniel Nicholson's saxophones and Tom Vaitsas' piano complementing the leader's trumpet. Mostly upbeat, sometimes soaring, with a nice ballad to close. Those with mainstream tastes will find much to enjoy here. Those looking for some edge will doubt it, but such albums are rarer than you'd think. B+(**)
Saturday, January 14. 2006
I'll probably regret this later, but I find myself wanting to write about religion. The Wichita Eagle has a "Faith" section they run each Saturday, and two articles there struck me, but they're not directly what I want to write about. One was on tolerance -- how can people who believe in the absolute verity of their religion get along with people who believe in something else? It featured five local theocrats, and had a little bit of pablum for everyone. The other was on Scalito, pointing out that if/when he's confirmed the US Supreme Court will have a majority of five Roman Catholics, then making a big case that that shouldn't matter to anyone, and anyhow Catholics have a wide range of political opinions. That's an argument that might be more convincing if these particular five had a wide range of opinions, but they don't. All five have been appointed by right-wing Republicans, and while I'm a little fuzzy about Kennedy, the other four are so far to the right it's a bit surprising that they can even stand up.
Which brings me to a digression. David Brooks wrote a column where he tried to make hay out of the argument that had Scalito been born earlier he would have been a Democrat, not a Republican. After all, way back when all Catholics were Democrats, but since Reagan the Democratic Party has lost its grip on Catholics, for the usual blah blah blah reasons. That's true enough, but as I recall recent election polls it's still a 50-50 proposition, with the Republicans doing better with Catholics who attend mass regularly and the Democrats doing better with Catholics who don't. Still, that doesn't explain why when the Republicans go searching for neo-fascist judges they keep coming up with Catholics. Maybe it's because Scalia and Thomas have held true to their faith, while token WASP Souter strayed? Or is it that the high church is the holy grail for reflexive authoritarians? That seems to be the best explanation why Sam Brownback, when he started his campaign to become America's Il Duce a decade or more ago, converted not just to Catholicism but to a faction that wants to roll back the 7th Vatican reforms.
Still, the Republicans love affair with Roman Catholicism has gotten rather weird. In particular, it completes a break with the party's roots. It's been a while since the Republicans pilloried the Democrats as the party of "Rum, Romanism and Rebellion," but the reversal is rather astonishing. Rebellion, you'll recall, was a jibe against the Democrats as the party of the Confederacy, so a more appropriate R-word would have been Racism, which adequately sums up the Solid South faction of the pre-civil rights Democratic Party. While it's not technically true that the Republicans have become the party of racism, it certainly is true that most serious racists side with the Republicans these days. So the Republicans have managed to capture two major components of what was once the Democratic Party. Rum was an R-word for hootch, a way of taunting the Democrats for opposing Prohibition, which was Middle America's Family Values hot button issue before they managed to get it passed and everyone finally realized what a stupid idea it was. Nowadays, the Republicans have other hot buttons, but in terms of reversing their century-plus-old campaign slander, why don't we substitute another old time sin that these days they embrace: casinos. (And not just because Jack Abramoff pays them to do so.)
So there is is: the Republicans have become the party of Casinos, Romanism and Racism. But having swallowed the old Democratic Party, you'd think they'd be much more than a 50-50 party these days, but they're not. For one thing, they've lost the once solid-Republican black vote. But they've also been bleeding off WASPs -- at least the ones who aren't filthy rich and haven't been deluded by all that born again nonsense. Souter, for instance, which is why they can't risk nominating another WASP, even a Harriet Miers. Now back from my digression . . . and into another.
I'm 55, born in 1950, which was after television and computers and jet airplanes were invented, after we A-bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, after Jackie Robinson joined the Dodgers, all of which were more monumental events than anything that has happened in my lifetime. But even within my lifetime I can remember the South, politically speaking, being solid white racist Democrat, and the Republicans being narrowly WASP but broad enough politically to include genuine progressives, and I grew up surrounded by people whose memories went back further -- past the World Wars, past Prohibition, perhaps secondhand all the way back to slavery and the Civil War. And one thing I remember from my childhood was a biting prejudice by WASPs against Roman Catholics. When Kennedy won in 1960 -- I was ten at the time -- he had to run as hard against typecasting as possible to overcome the prejudice. When I was growing up, the archetypal proponent of such prejudice was my grandmother, a scary old lady whose bigotry scarcely paused at Rome -- a second generation Swede, she always complained that the Lutherans were "as bad as the Catholics." (I've long wondered whether she had any clue that her favorite musician, Lawrence Welk, was Catholic, or even what champagne had to do with it.) I could see both sides: my closest friend was a neighbor boy who was Catholic -- German descent, and true to stereotype his father drove a beer truck and was never seen after work without a drink, while his mother raised five kids. I even thought about converting to be closer to him, but everything he told me about his religion struck me as complete bananas. (We belonged to the Christian Church, i.e., Disciples of Christ, which later I got very serious about, and later still I abandoned.)
Anyhow, the point of this digression isn't that once upon a time Catholics were discriminated against in the US but now we've gotten beyond all that so a potential Catholic majority on the Supreme Court just shows how liberal and tolerant we've become. No, the point is that even as late as when I was growing up, religion meant something, and people understood that religious differences had more significance than arbitrary things like hair color or taste in shoes. In particular, the difference between Protestants and Catholics was rooted in the Reformation, the 30 Years War, the English Civil War, the rise of capitalism, the struggles for abolition and (sorry about that) prohibition; in other words, in history and theology and ethics. But I have to wonder how many people in America today who think they're religious understand any of that? Why, in particular, do we have this unholy alliance between born again fundamentalists and far right Catholics? The common denominator seems to be hatred for abortion (women) and homosexuals, although they also spend an inordinate amount of energy pandering to Israel and crusading against Muslims -- the worst of whom seem to operate on exactly their wavelengths. But if that's all they stand for, that's not a religion -- that just means (pardon my French) they're assholes.
The church I grew up in was fundamentalist and evangelical, but it was also liberal, which nowadays is a paradox. It was fundamentalist in that it believed in the literal truth of the bible, although to do so it didn't try to reconcile nonsense in the old testament and Revelations -- it concentrated on the four gospels. It was evangelical in that it sent missionaries out, mostly abroad. It practiced adult baptism, the basic idea of born again without the bragging rights. But it was liberal in that it regarded faith as a personal matter and cared little about how other people practiced faith (or not), since faith can only be a personal matter. I tried hard to believe, and I studied this deep enough to get a Boy Scouts God and Country medal, then I gave it up. I found a contradiction between my ethics and my religion, and chose to stick with my ethics. I'm certainly not the only one who did this: liberal protestant churches are withering away in America, partly because people like me outgrow them, and partly because some who don't drift into conservative churches for one reason or another. (I have cousins who grew up as I did then became Catholics or Mormons because of family pulls.)
Sometimes I think about all this and come up with demented theories of religion. One is that we are in the middle of the second long revolution in religious thinking. The first was what's called the Axial Age, which encompasses the thousand years or so (roughly 400 BCE-600 CE) when virtually all of the major religions appeared, displacing earlier forms of paganism. The second began with the Reformation around 1500 CE and continues, unfinished and unstabilized, today. Before the first, religion was local-tribal, but as contact between tribes-nations-empires grew religion became more universal. In the second revolution, religion is tending to become more personal, which in turn allows society to become more secular. This, of course, elicits a backlash, as conservative elements in each religion strive to reverse the tide. The backlash has been relatively successful lately, partly due to conservative alliances across religions (such as the Republicans have sold their souls to), partly due to clashes between conservatives that wreak havoc on everyone else (such as the Global War of Terror). But in doing so, the conservatives lose their religion, reducing it to spite and hatred spiked with bouts of fantasy -- praying for the apocalypse may seem like a sweet rebuke to the secularists, but will surely come to naught.
If the situation seems dire now, it's because the right has become so skilled at usurping the concepts of progress -- we are, for instance, enjoined not to become anti-Catholic bigots and oppose Scalito, much as we are urged to complete the civil rights movement by saving the unborn -- and because those of use who know better prefer not to be bothered with the ravings of the lunatic fringe. Bush's elections, his wars, his packing of the courts, the trashing of science and reason, the looting of our institutions, the game of "steal from the poor to pay the rich" -- they get away with this because of indifference and incredulity. But also because the second revolution hasn't stabilized yet, because we don't yet have a simple, universal set of rules that keeps religion personal and lets society do what it takes for reasonable, equitable self-management. In my crazier moments I wonder if what's needed isn't a new religion, one that ignores questions of god and sticks to the here and now, that provides simple guidelines for living -- that has, after all, always been one of the roles of religion, and may be the one that must be replaced rather than voided. But having grown up in the throes of the old-time religion, I'm far too committed to unbelief to take on any such project.
Friday, January 13. 2006
Laura took Christmas week off and wanted to go see movies damn near every day, so we saw a bunch of them. Here's what I thought:
Movie: Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. With its movie within a movie recapitulating a movie based on a series of noir thriller books meant to be movies, this is too convoluted to deconstruct. Fortunately, it's funny enough often enough to enjoy anyway. Does seem like an awful lot of people get shot. B+
Movie: The Ice Harvest. The Wichita this is set in doesn't strike me as all that familiar -- a couple dark shots of downtown, a (possibly Oldtown) restaurant I'd never go to, a plausible albeit ridiculous (possibly Eastborough) house, some strip joints I know nothing about, a wintry pond that I suppose could be a sand pit (most of which have been turned into virtual Florida housing tracts). Also don't know anything about crooked lawyers and mobsters, but someone in this town seems to be taking in more money than honest work pays. This is really just a broken down film noir, and setting it in Wichita has got to be cheaper and less cliched than setting it in Hollywood. The cliched femme fatale also comes cheaper, as does Randy Quaid's mob boss character. Picks up a bit at the end, when it improbably turns into a buddy picture -- too late for Billy Bob Thornton, I'm afraid. B
Movie: Syriana. People say this is overly complicated, but it strikes me as underdeveloped. The thread with the Pakistani oil workers recruited for a suicide mission could have been cut without losing anything other than the vague hint that there's more to the world than the schemers who populate the rest of the story. Of the latter George Clooney's CIA agent and Jeffrey Wright's lawyer (or whatever) go through their motions without making much sense -- the former is presumably conflicted, the latter just dull. Matt Damon's business analyst is appropriately glib and cynical -- he gets the best lines in the movie when he taunts an oil prince on what his patch of sand will amount to once the West sucks it dry -- then briefly turns idealist with results that will make him all the more cynical. Only the Texas oil bosses seem to know who they are and why they do what they do, while the government people who do their bidding and rationalize it as being in the national interest come off as the most clueless of all. A big part of the value here is the cinematic breadth -- how much territory it covers, and in that at least the oil field shots are most interesting. But as a story, and hence as a critique, it's underdeveloped. B+
Movie: Jarhead. When I was draft bait back in the Vietnam era I hated war and injustice and all that, but what I really feared was boot camp. That was well before it became a staple of cinematic sado-masochism, of which this movie is state of the art. On the other hand, there's little reason to think that anything here rings false. (Last night I saw a clip on the news where the Navy was recruiting Seals using remarkably similar footage, including crawling under barbed wire while drill masters shot guns overhead, but they didn't include the bit where the soldier raised his head too high and had it taken off.) The 1990-91 war against Iraq seems on the mark too, at least from one vantage point -- on the ground, close enough to the action to see the charred remains but quick enough to get a shot off. Trained to kill one on one, Swofford is an inexperienced anachronism. For my money, that makes him a fool. Likely he would agree. A-
Movie: Munich. This is Steven Spielberg's remake of a HBO movie called Sword of Gideon -- same book, same events, bigger budget, less pointed message. The story is about one of Israel's covert assassination teams sent into Europe following the 1972 when a group from the Palestinian Black September organization abducted and killed eleven Israelis at the Munich Olympics. The team was given a list of Palestinians, allegedly responsible for Munich, and a large budget to practice their revenge. They shoot one guy easily, kill another with a relatively neat bomb, then another with a messier one. They in turn become the prey of the Palestinians, although this is much more muted in the Spielberg version. They also start to harbor doubts, although this is handled differently in the two versions, with the earlier one both more plausible and more pointed. Another advantage of Sword is that it spares us the Avner-debates-Ali scene, which while fair enough is an odd touch for a cold-blooded killers movie. But the big difference between the two movies is expands the context to include the whole Munich incident in the hypergory style he's developed lately, and not just as prologue: it reappears periodically, even spliced into Avner's nightmares. (He was safe at home in Israel at the time, happy with his pregnant wife, so his nightmares are mere transference -- a handy substitute for the violence he was actually involved in.) The problem with adding the Munich scenes is that it only adds part of the context -- Avner's motivation, but not Ali's. Black September itself was a short-lived offshoot of the PLO named for events in 1969 when the PLO was routed by Jordan, forcing them to flee first to Syria then to Lebanon, and its primary intent was revenge against Jordan. But context is a game that can be extended way back -- at least as far as the sainted Trumpeldor (d. 1920). The problem with the limited context here is that it distracts from the assassins' responsibility for their own acts. One thing that made Sword a much more powerful movie was it forced Avner to think for himself: his first surprise was how easy it was to kill at first, then later how complicated it became; he further learned what it meant to be a target, and got a sense of how Israel was using him. Ultimately he makes a distinction between being a soldier (a tank commander, but in Munich he was Mossad) and a killer. Sword doesn't overreach. On the other hand, Spielberg expands the story in several ways. Usefully, he includes several events not in Sword, including a commando raid in Beirut where we briefly meet future Israeli PM Ehud Barak. And he includes one scene that sums up the program perfectly: they snatch a Greek hotel manager who before they blew up his place had been friendly and generous to them, who when they dumped him was furious at how they had used him -- he stands for Europe, the victim of both sides, the victim both times. Going into this I didn't expect much from Spielberg but hoped writer Tony Kushner might pull something out of it. It's a mixed bag. But the fact that I can remember Sword of Gideon so vividly two decades after the only time I've seen it testifies to its power and importance. Hegel was the first to show how the master-slave dialectic destroys both -- a profound insight that applies just as well to these killers. B
Movie: Smokers. Not in general distribution, but it's not every day that we get a world premiere here in Wichita. And I suppose some disclosure is in order: my nephew Mike Hull, working with Axel Foley, wrote, directed, and acted in this DV film, and I put some money into it. Also I've read the script, and seen rough cuts of it before, but this is the first time I've seen the final cut. The plot is: dumb young kid from Wichita moves to New York, where he tries to buy reefer on the street. Hooks up with a local dealer in the park; later hooks up with another dealer, who specializes in primo buds, also originally from Kansas. Several other dealers do business elsewhere, with connections to the first two, and most of the film consists of routine daily business including connections with other smokers. In due course, one set of dealers decides to rob the Kansas dealer, and the schlemiel from Wichita gets caught in the middle. Not much of a plot, but enough to get by, with the film scoring most on its slice of life details. The editing has a lot of split screen effects, which underscores the steady movement. It was shot dirt cheap, but a lot of care has gone into putting it together. I may be biased, but I had more fun watching this than any other film in this batch. [website] A-
Movie: The Squid and the Whale. Production-wise Noah Baumbach's Sundance-winning film doesn't strike me as any better than Smokers. But it does have some name actors, and a more rounded, nuanced story. Set in Brooklyn in the '80s, two writers (each a Ph.D. in literature) divorce and divvy up time with two teenage sons. Beyond that, it's character development, or perhaps more accurately, character deconstruction. Presumably the story started out as autobiographical, with Baumbach the elder son, but the father comes off as such a pompous snob it may have wound up as parody. Or maybe not. A-
Movie: Breakfast on Pluto. A comedy of manners, I'd say, about a cross-dressing Irish orphan (Cillian Murphy) bending genders in the midst of Ulster's troubles. I didn't find it very interesting in watching it, but numerous little bits resonate in memory. For instance, the hero (Paddy, aka Kitten) is nabbed in a London disco bombing, then brutally interrogated by a hard-nosed cop who suspects him of planting the bomb, but later takes pity on on him and sets him up with a job in a house of prostitution, visited by his unacknowledged father, a priest played by Liam Neeson. B
Looking back through my notebook, these are the movies I saw in 2005 (*including a few 2004 releases that we got to late, or got here late), in approximate rank order:
Several movies in town that we might get around to: Brokeback Mountain, Pride and Prejudice, Walk the Line. That the grade list stops at B shows I did a pretty good job of avoiding crap this year. (E.g., Laura went to see War of the Worlds and Rent without me.) Needless to say, some things just don't get here, and others don't get here very fast. For a further roundup, see what Wichita's top film critics have to say.
Postscript: Laura thinks I overrated Hitchhiker's Guide, Capote, and Sin City, and underrated Hustle & Flow, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Syriana, The Ice Harvest, Breakfast on Pluto, and possibly others.
Thursday, January 12. 2006
The Scalito nomination is such an open and shut case that I haven't paid it much attention. (I know that's not his name, but Sen. Cornyn tripped up and used the nickname twice, and I figure we should do all we can to keep folks like him confused and confusing.) So I don't have anything specific to contribute here, but I thought it would be useful to take a couple steps back from the immediate fracas to look at the bigger picture.
The first thing an outsider might notice is how stridently political this and many recent Supreme Court nominations have become. A big part of this is that we don't have a commonly agreed upon understanding of what the Supreme Court's role should be, and that makes it hard to agree upon what makes a good Justice. For instance, let me give you my definition: the role of the Supreme Court is to act as a check and balance against the other branches of government overstepping their authority and infringing upon the rights of individuals. Those are, after all, the core ideas of American democracy: separation of powers, checks and balances, the bill of rights.
Yet those concepts are rarely discussed. One suspects that the problem is structural, in that both the President and the Senate -- the parties charged with nominating and confirming judges -- are the very powers that the court is meant to check. The founding fathers must have seen this potential conflict, but they probably assumed that responsible statesmen would have enough respect for the courts to select appropriate people. And they added the hedge of giving judges lifetime terms (except for impeachment), so once confirmed justices would not be subject to the whims of politics. It's possible that it never worked that way, even if it usually worked well enough. But it's especially broken down now for four reasons: 1) the President and the Senate are controlled by the same political party; 2) that party is able to enforce an unprecedented degree of discipline; 3) that party, or at least its dominant faction, has made major political issues out of attacking court rulings, and has committed itself to changing those rulings by packing the courts; 4) some members of the Supreme Court (notably Antonin Scalia) have acted in blatantly partisan ways, leaving the impression that the Court is just another political forum. I'm tempted to add a fifth point, which is that we've never before had a President as reckless and contemptuous of the Constitution as this one. But that point hasn't fully sunk in -- this Republican politicization of the Court goes back to Reagan's appointments of Rehnquist and Scalia, although the Democrats didn't figure that out until Bork.
My point that judges should be selected according to criteria specific to their role -- that we should look for people who will stand up for the rights of individuals and stand up against the transgressions of the executive and legislative branches -- could well be extended to the executive. One of Bush's great failings is that he has shown no skill and no desire to actually run the federal government in accordance with the laws and mandates that have been set for it. Rather, he rules as if his only job is chief political poobah, as if his nominal status as "commander in chief" lets him direct the military and security aparatus as his private fiefdom. It would be nice for once to actually have a President who sees his main task as managing the day-to-day workings of the government to make it function as a service for its citizens -- in other words, if the executive branch of government executed the laws and policies assigned to the government. With Bush we not only don't have an honest executive. With Bush we have a would-be emperor -- what the Last Poets referred to as a "white man with a God complex." Never have we had a more dire need for checks and balances.
Wednesday, January 11. 2006
I've noticed a few pieces recently on the costs of the Bush War in Iraq.
Andrew Cockburn asks the question "How Many Iraqis Have Died Since the US Invasion in 2003?" Several people have pointed out recently that the simple fact that the U.S. doesn't make a serious effort to tote up civilian deaths in Iraq is certain proof that the Administration just doesn't care what the impact of this war is on Iraqis. After this point made the rounds, Bush tried to make amends of some sort by citing 30,000 as a likely number. Most likely he got this number not from the CIA or DOD but from the minimalist iraqbodycount.net web site. The latter systematically undercounts deaths because it depends on multiple news reports -- one obvious distortion is that the worse security gets for reporters, the fewer deaths get reported.
Researchers at Johns Hopkins took a different approach over a year ago, using statistical sampling to come up with an estimate that centered on 100,000 deaths. Cockburn took their work and extrapolated for the ellapsed time, bringing the most probable death count up to 180,000. The main assumption here is that the death rate has remained constant. That seems like a pretty safe bet, although I can see more arguments for up than down.
Of course, deaths are only one aspect of measuring the impact of invasion and occupation on Iraq. One simple sanity check on government progress reports is to look at the oil export figures, which have remained below pre-invasion levels and if anything have dropped in recent months. The oil infrastructure was, after all, the only thing the US bothered to guard in the chaos that ensued after Saddam Hussein's government fell. Recent reports are that gasoline availability in Baghdad risks drying up completely. Just as there are no systematic statistics on deaths and injuries in Iraq, there is no systematic study of the economic and other damages this war has wrought.
On the other hand, Linda Bilmes and Joseph E. Stiglitz have attempted to work out the war's economic costs to the US in a recent study. Everett Dirksen used to joke that a billion here, a billion there, pretty soon you're talking about real money. Well, Bilmes and Stiglitz have come up with some numbers that amount to real money: a trillion dollars, maybe two. Many of the costs they count in are unbudgeted future costs, such as disabilities. They also factor in the debt incurred by the deficit financing of the war, and they work up some fairly straightforward macroeconomic costs. In the latter I suspect that their "conservative" and "moderate" scenarios are way too much so. But more important than the numbers is that they broaden the scope of what we think of as being costs.
Mostly absent from these cost analyses is an accounting of the benefits side of the war. When Bush cited 30,000 Iraqi deaths, he hastened to add that such costs were worth it. I'm not the person to try to figure out what those benefits are -- from where I stand they sure don't look like much, and some things that Bush no doubt values highly, like securing his second term, look like unfathomable negatives out here.
Michael Klare's recent piece on "Losing the War on Terrorism" isn't very satisfactory, although the conclusion is certainly correct. Any way you care to measure terrorism -- whether broad enough to include when the US bombs a house thought to shelter Iraqi insurgents resulting in a half-dozen dead women and children or the more narrow case of Salafi-Jihadists attacking Americans at home or abroad -- the world's capacity and inclination toward terrorism has increased greatly since the day Bush declared war. But Klare accepts Bush's fundamental error in treating terrorism as a defense problem, allowing him to proceed straight into questions of military tactics -- he asks, where is terrorism's "center of gravity," as if facing a sumo wrestler. He then makes a key distinction which Bush missed, a consequence of his either-you're-with-us-or-against-us myopia, that terrorists are not contained by rogue states.
It would be worthwhile to tear the whole illogic of the war on terrorism apart, but I don't feel up to that right now. Suffice it to say that the first error Bush and nearly all Americans made was to assume that the US had done nothing to elicit the attacks on 9/11. Like some neat mathematical trick, we factored ourselves out of the problem, leaving only an enemy with no understandable reason to attack us. In doing so, we blinded ourselves to the idea that we might need to (or even want to) change our behavior. The second mistake was to think that because we were the ones attacked the perpetrators were only out to attack us. (Actually, Al Qaeda doesn't give a rat's ass what we think. Their only concern is in convincing Muslims to adopt their view and stand up to right the depredations of the non-believers, including those faux Muslims who rule most states in the world of Islam. By attacking us they show their strength and will to fight; when we respond in kind or worse, we show our true colors.) Consequently, we misunderstood who we were fighting, why, how strong this enemy was, and what they were fighting for. Mapping these misunderstandings onto a simple us-or-them model of the world led us to ignore the fact that most of the world is neither us nor them. Worse, it led us to wildly inconsistent estimates of just who them are.
Those misunderstandings are pretty much endemic to who Americans are, how we think of ourselves, and how little we think of everyone else. On top of this, the US had (still has) a president with a political agenda that was predisposed to flaunt America's military might. And we had (still have?) a military, supposedly meant to defend us, with the capability of launching wars anywhere around the globe. Klare faults the military for its focus on rogue states, but the fact is that the military has no real competency except for massive destruction, and is hopelessly counterproductive when any sort of finesse is called for. Still, when Bush called for a war, he stuck himself with the US military. Had he limited himself to Afghanistan, where the military played a small and reluctant role, he might have gotten away with it. But he played the war card again in Iraq, and failed on all accounts.
Madeleine Albright has been in the news recently, saying that while she disapproved of invading Iraq, now that we're there we have to fight on because we can't afford to fail. Beats me why -- I'd like to see a list of what we actually lose by cutting our losses and getting the hell out. Such arguments usually center around the risk of showing weakness to your enemies -- they say it encourages them. But most of what we've shown to Iraqis in this war is how callous and cruel we can be, how conceited we are, and how disdainful we are of them. And not just to Iraqis: we've shown as much to the whole world, a world whose good will we will increasingly depend on. Even if leaving emboldens a handfull of diehards, it will spare the much, much larger populace our spectacle.
The only way to deal with people willing to resort to terrorism is to marginalize them. To do that, you have to convince the people they hope to recruit to shun them, to turn on them even. To do that, first you have to look into yourself and get right. Then you have to convince everyone else of your rightness. That's a tall order for America, and an impossible one for someone like Bush. The second best plan is to just ignore the terrorists, except maybe for pursuing them through the normal legal channels. It's not like they can really do much damage. Fighting them is what they want: it legitimizes them, while making us look worse. Worst of all is watching Bush fight terrorism. It's like watching Edward Norton's character in Fight Club beat himself senseless while hallucinating about people he thinks he's fighting.
Nonetheless, one shouldn't get all bent out of shape over how badly Bush has fared against terrorism. It's not that important an issue -- certainly not compared to poverty or the environment or learning how to live together with respect and cooperation. Bush likes terrorism because he doesn't like those other issues. And also because America has been dumb enough to fall for it, letting him pursue his other agendas -- which not coincidentally are often as damaging as his handling of terrorism. There's plenty in Bush's war on terrorism to criticize, but saying you can do better then limiting yourself to his definitions isn't much of a challenge. The problem isn't that he botched the response to Al Qaeda. It's that America didn't know any better than to let him fly off the handle.
The costs at least should be sobering. There's something profoundly wrong when the response to 3,000 dead Americans in a freak incident leads us to spend a trillion dollars and kill 180,000 (and counting) people in another country only related to the original attackers by our prejudices.